In the midst of working on my tech project for my final COETAIL course 5 presentation, I realized that utilizing the fishbowl discussion strategy for our english unit would be ideal. Currently, my English Skills 12 class, who on a side note is full of students with extreme “senioritus”, is studying a unit on personal memoirs. Alongside working on a joint definition of what a memoir is on a classroom Google document, they were assigned examples of various memoirs to read. I chose a couple of chapters written in memoir fashion by David Sedaris in Dress my Family in Corduroy and Denim, as well as a chapter from Rhoda Janzen and her memoirs titled Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I figured an interesting way to have classroom discussions about the readings which would integrate technology within the classroom to a whole new level, would be with the fishbowl technique.
I first discovered the fishbowl technique in one of our COETAIL classes, where Jeff Utech had us participate both in and out of the fishbowl to discuss a reading. If you haven’t heard of the fishbowl technique basically it is a method of turning your classroom into a technological fishbowl of sorts. The students are split into two groups, where half are “in” the fishbowl, and the other half are “outside” the fishbowl. You arrange a central table or circle of chairs that are inside, and the other students sit around them on the outside. Inside the fishbowl is a facilitator, and the others are participants in the discussion. I actually chose to have 2 student facilitators because I feel like it is a bit harder for some teenagers, in comparison to adults, to keep a literary discussion rolling (especially for students with special needs). The students outside the fishbowl, those looking in, are also split into different roles. I had 2 students taking notes of what the discussion in the middle was about on a Google document, and the others were commenters. The folks whose role was to comment, basically had their own conversation via the commenting feature on the side of the same Google document which related to the inside main discussion. We had a total of 4 fishbowl discussions within my English Skills 12 class over the past month and a half, where all of the students had an opportunity to be in each of the four roles: facilitator, participant, note-taker, and commenter. Before the actual fishbowl discussions I had the students write down a couple of discussion questions, and these were used as a reference point for the facilitators in case they needed them. many times they did and directly worked from these questions which were the classes questions. After completing a fishbowl discussion I asked every student to reflect on how they believed it went, as well as what they personally liked and disliked about their role. I learned quite a bit.
Basically the following explanations are the main points I got out of having my students participate in fishbowl discussions. Some are obviously captain obvious points, while other may spark some further thought. Here it goes…
- It is difficult to have a discussion when some of the students have not done the reading, or do not fully understand it. This is obviously because fishbowl discussions require full participation to really keep the discussions going.
- If the students really liked the reading and were interested in the conversation, obviously the discussion was more relevant and meaningful for each student.
- The students really struggled the first time with understanding why the roles were the way they were, and some felt very limited by their role and thus downright did not like the process.
- If a student had a role that matched their personality they really enjoyed the activity and were much more likely to participate to a greater degree.
- If a student had a role that they found challenging due to their personality, they struggled and found the activity uncomfortable.
- Almost every student enjoyed the commenting role, most likely because they are so used to chatting all of the time with their friends and it is similar to texting.
- The students first found it really weird and almost difficult that I was not inside the fishbowl helping them discuss the topic and keeping the discussion alive. Later, I believe that they enjoyed being able to have a discussion where they knew it was on their terms and I wouldn’t interject.
- After a couple of fishbowl discussions, the students were more engaged overall in the discussion because they knew what their role was, and what was expected of them.
- The students that I worked with, and had participate in the fishbowl discussions had never done any activity like this before where they were expected to utilize technology and “chat” with each other in the classroom.
The fourth and final fishbowl discussion we completed last week was more or less completely student run. I limited the topic to simply memoirs and your high school experience and let them see where it went. It was one of the most meaningful discussions I have ever heard out of students over my 6 years of teaching. Students were opening up and honestly sharing about both the positive and the painful experiences they have had throughout high school. Students were incredibly sincere about expressing their emotions related to their readiness for university. It was melancholy. It was nostalgic. It was inspiring. It was REAL.
I would definitely recommend the fishbowl activity to teachers as a tool to utilize with students for classroom discussions. Although there is a learning curve as far as learning the roles and expectations, I believe that you will be amazed what kind of self-reflection occurs. Students were very frank about what roles they enjoyed and despised, and honestly I think it was good for them. The fishbowl is one of those activities that can force students out of their comfort zone and push them to improve communication, collaboration, and introspection skills. So jump in, the water’s fine.